Johnson County Community College’s Human Resources office is a weird place to face a moral dilemma.
Before I could teach American History and Western Civilization at the college, I had to “solemnly swear (or affirm, as the case may be) that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Kansas, and faithfully discharge the duties of ______. So help me God.”
In Kansas, any entity that receives federal, state, county or municipal money also has to shovel around a small paper with this pledge. To get a paycheck, you have to sign it or walk away from the job.
My employment file was thick as a heavy magazine. Despite the resume, curriculum vitae, and an application that was some 10 pages long, a tiny piece of paper — the size of third of a sheet of standard typing paper — stood in my way. I knew that I should have just signed and kept my head low.
But I couldn’t. I don’t take oaths. I don’t swear to God or anyone else. I’m not a “God” kind of guy, nor do I think you should have to be to work for anyone, anywhere. I believe coercing people to say or think anything, or to make them act en masse is wrong. That goes for the National Anthem at baseball games and the “Pledge of Allegiance” in any school, political gathering or start of a legislative session.
The Kansas Legislature, which passed the loyalty oath requirement in 1967, should have loyalty to Kansans and their institutions — not the other way around. The only mention of a loyalty oath in the U.S. Constitution has to do with elected and appointed government officials — in essence, they must swear loyalty to us.
Such distinctions matter. It’s anti-American to force the People to swear fealty to the government ordained to serve them.
Most people sign such slips of paper like they sign any other form — because someone says they have to. But for every one of them — even for those people who think about it and sign willingly, or don’t want to sign but do anyway — signing such a document means they assent to the power the Kansas Legislature thinks it has. And though I am not a Kansan, I have problems with the Kansas government making its citizens, or anyone else, swear loyalty to it.
I repeatedly read the words I found so objectionable. I wanted to teach because I do it well, like it and need the money.
But as a historian and union laborer, I know the history of such oaths and how they can be used against people. They were, are, and always will be tools of overzealous people who seek to use the apparatus of state to suppress that which scares them.
Making people raise their hands and swear loyalty the Republic has been around since the Revolutionary War. We used loyalty oaths in the Civil War to keep Confederate spies out the army — and many Confederate spies signed and swore anyway, and then went back to their intelligence work. After the war, Radical Republicans (who I generally consider heroes) used loyalty oaths to punish Confederates and their sympathizers, who, again, signed them anyway.
We used such oaths to stifle legitimate dissent against the alleged “American way of life” during the Red Scares of the mid- and late-nineteenth century, the Labor Movement, and Red Scare of the 1920s, the New Deal, and World War II and the Cold War. They have been used to de-legitimize trade and industrial unionists, leftist and rightist thinkers, civil libertarians, and other critics of American politics, economics, and culture.
Another hero of mine, Franklin Roosevelt used the loyalty oath to squash objection to aspects of the New Deal and the buildup to war. It hurts me to think of the old man understanding the efficiency of the loyalty oath in silencing obstructionist and reactionary critics.
During the early days of the Cold War, Harry Truman, trying to prove to conservative House and Senate members he was no softy when it came to communism, established his Loyalty Program. Any government employee or official suspected of having leftist sympathies had to sign a loyalty oath and undergo a background check.
From that moment in 1947 on, it was open season on dissent. Sen. Joe McCarthy, with a wad of papers in his hand and fire in his voice, terrorized an entire generation of American political and cultural actors with pure lies. One of his main tools was the lack of a signature on a loyalty oath. Such absence was indication to McCarthy and his pals that an American was disloyal and needed to be made steadfast.
States then took up the banner of loyalty and began to make people swear they had never been a member of any party seen as subversive or disloyal.
Similarly coercive, the House of Representatives’ House Un-American Activities Committee used power and public exposure to humiliate and blacklist many regular, walking-around Americans. The committee often used loyalty oaths as tools to corner “subversive” Fifth Columnists and Fellow Travelers.
1930s demagogues Father Charles Coughlin, Gerald L.K. Smith, and Sen. William Lemke proved just how willing they were to impugn the loyalty of others to further their own beliefs and careers. Their modern counterparts — Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and the more fringe Mark Levine, Michael Savage, and the host of AM/cable mouths — use loyalty to country as a mainstay of censuring legitimate debate over political, economic, and cultural change.
Until either side appeals to emotional viscera via the loyalty question, opposition to dominant political trends and ideas is only good for us. It is the root of political debate.
But as soon as those good old American guts come out on the floor, the debate is over and those on both sides start making themselves out to be better Americans than the other.
Fortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court started gutting federal, state and local loyalty oaths in the 1960s and ’70s on First Amendment grounds. Such oaths interfered with freedom of speech, expression and assembly. The Supreme Court ruled at the same time, however, that such oaths, carefully worded, are constitutional.
So, what’s the big deal? If Supreme Court rulings have essentially ruled that loyalty oaths do nothing, mean nothing, why not sign them?
Actually, such little slips of paper do have meaning. A person who signs a loyalty oath consents to legislators’ and government organizations’ power to make people swear loyalty to them and their ideas. Very circular stuff. Sign and consent to the state’s power to make you sign loyalty oaths. Don’t sign and the state uses its power used against you, whether you agree or not.
In short, a loyalty oath intimidates people who would rather practice American principles on their own terms. It coerces people to sign things they may not want to so they can get a paycheck.
Faced with either signing the document or doing without a paycheck, I did the next best thing. At the bottom of the sheet, in parentheses, there was a small note that read that people with “conscientious scruples” against oaths could, instead, affirm the pledge, striking the oath parts out.
Affirmation, as a form of dissent, has existed as long as the loyalty oath. We can thank the Quakers who wanted to fight for the Americans in the Revolutionary War for that. Quakers, strictly speaking, do not swear oaths. They will affirm, however, that they have been asked to do so. So, that’s what I did. I affirmed that the State of Kansas thought a loyalty oath was important, even if I didn’t.
Here’s what my loyalty affirmation looked like when I was done striking out the offensive phrases:
“I…will faithfully discharge the duties of adjunct professor of history.”
I signed the little paper: “Patrick Dobson, under protest.”
My word to discharge my duties as an instructor of American History and Western Civilization is better than binding. My word is what I am made of. I do not need God, the United States or Kansas to make it so.
Despite this, a few days later, I got a call from one of my colleagues who told me the Human Resources people objected to the extent of my strike outs and couldn’t tell if I was going to be loyal or not. I had to do it again.
I went into the office and met the officious person who makes sure employment files are complete. I was frustrated at having to return to the college from my house after having already been in that office earlier. I’d asked specifically if all the pieces were in place and if there was anything else they needed of me. Inadvertently, in my frustration, referred to “the loyalty oath garbage.”
The person gave me an evil look and growled in a low voice, “You just wait a minute. I love the Constitution and I love the United States. This is not garbage.’
I apologized, adding that I, too, loved my country and believed wholeheartedly in its founding document–except the slave parts. More importantly, I told the person I love the members of my species who made up that country. Signing a loyalty oath, however, was a deeply moral issue with me.
“You struck out ‘God’ on your oath, and that’s a deeply moral issue to me.”
“Good for you,” I said. “But you miss the point. This document is a coercive act. I sense that you consider yourself a patriotic conservative?”
“Well, yes. I do.”
“Then, why would I swear to serve a government? Shouldn’t the government be serving you and me?”
This was not about any “God” but about the Constitution. That founding document says in Article VI that, “No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” (Capitals as written in the Constitution.) Granted, in its beginning the Constitution meant the American government. But over the years, now centuries, the Supreme Court, the national legislature, the president, and the people have expanded those words to cover many corporate and individual behaviors. Regardless of the Constitution’s meaning to Americans, courts, and laws, I would hope that publicly funded higher education falls under the public trust.
She made it through the next minutes by not uttering a word. She showed her distaste for my conduct with brooding silence of the passive-agressive. I felt sorry for her, but I felt worse for the devout Quaker, Anabaptist, Universalist, or Muslim who needed a job and happened to apply at a state-funded organization in Kansas.
I signed the loyalty paper, again with strike-throughs. What remained was:
“I…support the Constitution of the United States…and will faithfully discharge the duties of adjunct professor of history. So help me: Really. No kidding.”
I wrote in the last bit after striking out “God.” I signed the paper again, “Patrick Dobson, under protest”
Certainly, loyalty oaths are important to some people. Such people see the document as protecting the rights of the people against foreign influence or subversion. After all, we have to have public servants and elected officials, as well as naturalized citizens and soldiers who are loyal to the Republic. Right?
But will the absence of loyalty oaths in Red-state Kansas or anywhere else mean society would break down and Americans would somehow cease to be American?
My loyalty to my nation and its principles had been questioned. In being a good American I had gotten sideways with an institution that conveys education and knowledge — a deeply spiritual trust important to the health of the Republic.
But I was happy to know that the Kansas Legislature was afraid of teachers. Sadly, legislators were so scared of them that they made teachers, coerced them, into signing a document in order to be paid for their labor.
No one should have that much power.
“Loyalty oaths, as well as other contemporary ‘security measures’ tend to stifle all forms of unorthodox and unpopular thinking or expression — the kind of thought and expression which has played such a vital and beneficial role in the history of this Nation. The result is a stultifying conformity which in the end may well turn out to be more destructive to our free society than foreign agents could ever hope to be.” –Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, Yates v. United States, 354 U.S. 298, 344, 77 S.Ct 1064, 1090, 1 L.Ed.2d 1356